Short staffing and high demand could spell disaster for your summer travel plans

Get ready for another sold-out summer when it comes to travel. Across the country, there are still labor shortages in many industries.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the travel industry. An additional 75,000 leisure and hospitality jobs were added just in March, according to new data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but the industry will likely need to remain on a hiring binge if it’s to keep up with demand throughout what’s expected to be a busy summer for travel.

Air travel is particularly affected by labor shortages in sectors such as air traffic controllers, flight attendants, pilots, ground crew and food service workers within airports.

Many in the travel industry are pushing for the government to help.

“The federal government can help solve staffing needs by increasing the cap on H-2B temporary worker visas and permanently exempting returning workers from the cap,” U.S. Travel Association president and CEO Geoff Freeman said in a released statement.

The U.S. Travel Association has been vocal about labor shortages in the travel industry since visa changes were implemented in 2020 during the pandemic. Once the industry began hiring again in 2021 and travel came roaring back, it seemed apparent that the U.S. travel industry was still not staffed to pre-pandemic levels.

Although Delta Air Lines executives said during a quarterly earnings call last week that the airline and its vendors were adequately staffed, shortages continue to persist in many corners of the industry.

Labor shortages persist, and everyone is hiring

Airports have been particularly affected by labor shortages, with some going to extraordinary lengths to attract additional workers.

At Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX), monthly job fairs highlight open positions. Many of the jobs pay above minimum wage. Examples include the four locations Kind Hospitality operates at PHX: Fazoli’s and O.H.S.O. Brewery in Terminal 4, and two Panera Bread restaurants in terminals 3 and 4. The average hourly wage for a cashier is $15.21. That’s $1.36 more than Arizona’s minimum wage.

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While currently staffed, hiring additional workers will help the restaurants schedule more efficiently, according to Ashley Negron, spokesperson for Kind Hospitality.

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She noted that the most difficult positions to fill have been baristas and cooks, despite the benefits offered that include free parking, health and life insurance, short- and long-term disability, paid time off and free meals while on shift and discounted meals when not on shift, a referral bonus and occasional sign-on bonuses.

According to the job fair website, the Transportation Security Administration at PHX is also hiring and offering a $5,000 sign-on bonus and a full benefits package, including medical, dental, vision and federal retirement plan.

Los Angeles airports are also hiring, according to Amber Meshack, director of business, jobs and social responsibility for Los Angeles World Airports.

“Jobs that are most in demand include retail and food service worker positions which follow predictable seasonal demands throughout the year,” Meshack said. “Right now, employers are gearing up for summer tourism season.”

“However, you will note that technical positions (such as mechanics and ground service operators), administrative positions and managerial positions are also in high demand,” Meshcak added.

Spokespeople for vendors at both Phoenix and Los Angeles airports noted that the higher average wages are a competitive advantage. However, the security requirements and long lead times to obtaining security badges can be challenges, especially for those seeking an immediate start to work.

Air traffic controller shortages

RAFAEL CORDERO/GETTY IMAGES

Short staffing isn’t limited to the airport and the aircraft. Air traffic controllers are still in short supply, which has the potential to cause further problems this summer.

Last year, chronic short staffing at the air traffic control center in Jacksonville, Florida, contributed to ongoing cascading delays, with aircraft and crew members flying through the busy Florida airspace unable to get to their next assignments during disruptions caused by bad weather.

The situation at Jacksonville and across the board appears to have improved somewhat. However, with the Federal Aviation Administration hiring and training new controllers, a significant shortfall at the FAA’s New York-area control facility could cause new headaches this year.

While the FAA and airlines have already taken steps to reduce traffic in New York’s skies this summer to take some of the load off of controllers there, the facility remains staffed at only 54{5a5867cc9cca71cf546db38f42fbf171004839e3542174405390d177276b4f49} of the ideal level, the FAA said, compared to 81{5a5867cc9cca71cf546db38f42fbf171004839e3542174405390d177276b4f49} average staffing nationally.

So, even with the mitigation efforts the FAA has put into place, thunderstorms and other weather could lead to major disruptions in the Northeast this summer, cascading through the rest of airlines’ networks as aircraft, pilots and flight attendants get caught out of place.

DOT complaints are on the rise

In the latest Air Travel Consumer Report released by the U.S. Department of Transportation, complaints about airline service in 2022 were up 55.3{5a5867cc9cca71cf546db38f42fbf171004839e3542174405390d177276b4f49} from the 49,991 complaints received in 2021.

Of the 77,656 documented complaints received in 2022, 24,647 (31.7{5a5867cc9cca71cf546db38f42fbf171004839e3542174405390d177276b4f49}) concerned flight problems (including complaints about lack of reimbursements for costs associated with flight problems), 19,983 (25.7{5a5867cc9cca71cf546db38f42fbf171004839e3542174405390d177276b4f49}) concerned refunds, and 12,007 (15.5{5a5867cc9cca71cf546db38f42fbf171004839e3542174405390d177276b4f49}) concerned baggage, according to the data.

What this means for travelers

Travelers pass under a TSA PreCheck checkpoint sign at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. DANIEL ACKER/BLOOMBERG/GETTY IMAGES

With no sign of air travel slowing down, what does this mean for travelers this summer? Pack your patience, for starters.

Lack of staff at the airport can mean longer lines, so plan ahead as much as possible and also have a backup plan if needed. Were you affected by the Southwest meltdown over the holidays, or were you one of the unlucky travelers with lost luggage? If you want to do everything in your power to avoid a similar situation this year, keep reading.

Here are a few tips from the TPG travel experts:

  • Get TSA PreCheck or Clear to expedite your security screening. If you have both, you can choose the shorter line.
  • Travel with a carry-on if possible. It will save you money on baggage fees if you don’t carry a cobranded airline credit card or hold elite status, and you won’t have to worry about losing your luggage.
  • Can’t carry on? Use a tracking device for your bag, like an Apple AirTag. It has saved many bags for TPG writers and many readers.
  • Take the first flight of the day. Usually, this means your plane has arrived the night before, so there’s less chance of delays. Flying nonstop is also a great way to try and avoid any unexpected layovers.
  • Book a backup flight. Using points and miles to secure a backup flight if your original plan goes sideways might save your vacation. Just be sure to cancel before departure to get your miles redeposited in your account.
  • Use a credit card that carries travel protections like trip interruption and cancellation insurance. Even if you are traveling on an award ticket, if you pay the taxes on the ticket with one of these cards, you are covered.

Bottom line

A lack of baggage handlers, air traffic controllers, pilots and staff at security checkpoints, check-in desks and airport gates means things could get messy this summer.

It’s unlikely that all open jobs at America’s airports and airlines will be filled in time for the busy summer travel season. So, plan in advance as much as possible and follow the tips outlined above.

May the odds be ever in your favor.

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